On Thursday, some media outlets reported that there had been 98.3% polling in Jammu and Kashmir’s first-ever block development council elections. Even in the Kashmir Valley, Srinagar had reportedly seen 100% polling. South Kashmir’s Shopian district, the epicentre of the local militancy, saw the lowest polling percentage – at 85.3%.
This seemed to be a marked departure from previous elections in Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the Valley. In the Lok Sabha elections this April, Srinagar had seen a voter turnout of about 13%. The South Kashmir districts of Pulwama and Shopian had seen less than 3% polling. The difference may lie in the fact that these are indirect elections.
Block development councils are the second layer of the Jammu and Kashmir panchayati raj system. The council chairmen are voted in by an electoral college formed by panchs and sarpanchs in their respective blocks. These councils have never been formed before as the erstwhile state has historically had a weak panchayati raj system.
Direct elections to the panchayats, held last year, saw dismal turnouts and no contests in many seats of the Kashmir Valley. Only 30% of panchayat halqas – or clusters of villages headed by a sarpanch – in the Kashmir Valley saw polling. The 2018 panchayat polls left about 61% of panch wards and over 45% sarpanch seats vacant in the Valley. This meant that for this year’s block development council polls, the electoral colleges were not filled to capacity.
Out of a total 316 seats in Thursday’s poll, 27 candidates had already been elected unopposed, leaving 1,065 candidates in the fray. In nine seats, including four reserved for women, there were no eligible candidates. Independent candidates accounted for 853 nominations filed. In the Kashmir Valley, 396 candidates stood for election in 162 blocks.
Elections under siege
The elections held for the 283 blocks passed off quietly, although under heavy security. They were the first elections held after August 5, when the Centre announced it was stripping Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and splitting the state into two Union Territories. This makes them the last elections to be held in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which on October 31 will become a Union Territory, separated from the Ladakh region.
The elections were boycotted by the Congress, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. Most of the Valley’s political leadership, including three former chief ministers – the National Conference’s Omar and Farooq Abdullah and the People’s Democratic Party’s Mehbooba Mufti – is behind bars. Internet connections, suspended on the night of August 4, have still not been restored in the Valley.
A civil shutdown protesting against the government’s August 5 decisions has kept shops across the Valley closed. There had been apprehensions of violence. In the days leading up to the polls, a school in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district had been set on fire and there had been grenade attacks the weeks before that.